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LIGHTS ON LAURENTIANS: A Camp, A Counselor, and a Connection

Written by Claire Mendes

The air is stale with cigarette smoke. The smell has been layered onto the inside of Potosi Bowling Alley and now seems to be a part of its very foundation, from the dull musty odor in the worn patterned carpet to the sharp, pungent tendrils lazily floating to the low ceiling. There is an ashtray on each plastic-topped table.

Pins clunk at the end of the jarringly bright lane. Fix-It ambles back to the chair where Fiesta is sitting on Mowgli’s lap and holding a paper Pepsi cup. She takes a long sip of “liquid marijuana,” the combination of UV Blue and Mountain Dew that all the camp counselors drink when they venture into town on their Saturday nights off, from a partially chewed plastic straw. Behind her, a child trips over a chair and sprawls onto the floor as he chases after his sister. The analog clock on the wall behind the bar reads midnight.

The rest of the twenty-something counselors line up at the bar in the back of the bowling alley. They’ve abandoned their tank tops and athletic shorts for crop tops and shorts to venture out into the real world, but still wear the tell-tale Chacos on their feet. The bartender doesn’t even make a show of asking for IDs. Ruddy and sticky from the alcohol and humidity of Missouri in the summer, the young intruders laugh and dance as though they were in a city club and not a small-town bowling alley. By the makeshift DJ’s table, Otto has gotten into a twerking competition with one of the few locals clustered on the “dance floor.”

“That was fecking awesome,” he turns around and announces in his thick Scottish brogue, high-fiving the Pototian man who chuckles and returns back to his table.

“They always know that we’re us because we’re, like, weird, and we wear the Chacos,” explains Castaway,  known at St. Lawrence as Rachel Mills ’18, leaning back in her desk chair and taking a sip of her Diet Coke. “And, I mean, also they know every single person in Potosi, so obviously they know we’re not Pototians.” Castaway, who is from Jefferson City, has been going to the camp sequestered on the fringes of Potosi, Missouri for fifteen years as both a camper and a counselor.

“Where y’all from?” at the bowling alley, a Pototian man waves over Hodge-Podge and Gepetto from his table a few feet away. He sits with some of his friends at their vinyl table in the dim, orange corner. Each holds a cigarette in their hands. The man gives them a mustard-colored smile, displaying his remaining teeth.

The counselors glance warily at one another — Hodge-Podge, a trans woman from St. Louis, is wearing a bright pink kimono and homemade earrings, her lime-green hair tucked behind one ear. Drawn by the persistent gaze of their new friend, they reluctantly accept the man’s invite and slide into the red plastic chairs. They face the semi-circle of Pototians who look at them with interest, presiding over the council like the Five Families of Potosi.

The locals seem disappointed when the counselors tell them they are from the U.S., clearly hoping to talk to some of the international counselors. They continue to chat, however, one proffering a pack of menthols to Gepetto.

“Truman State? That’s a good school,” nods one woman approvingly at Hodge-Podge, listening as she talks about her elementary education program. Relieved, the counselors return their smiles.

“People in Potosi have no reason to be mean,” Castaway tells me as if this should be obvious. “People are mean everywhere else, but in Potosi they’re nice.” They just want to talk, she says — they just want to hear about wherever people are from that’s not Potosi. The town is its own little world, she explains, its own separate reality. At approximately 2,600 people, it’s just over the size of St. Lawrence University.

“If I was from Potosi, I would still be in Potosi,” Castaway laughs, then pauses. “That was mean. See, I’m not from Potosi, so I’m not nice.” Even though Jefferson City, where she lives, is just a few hours away, it’s on a completely separate plane. The houses of many of the counselors are in suburban blocks with pools and alarm systems.

One Saturday night off, Goldberg threw a party in her large home in a gated community in St. Louis. The next day, the hungover counselors drove the two hours back to camp. Outside the window, green parks and black SUVs soon gave way to scattered trailers and trucks with rusted bottoms.

As the road winds past farms and back into Potosi, the counselors are greeted by a large billboard listing all the churches in the town. Down past the two vape shops, a giant tent has been set up selling fireworks for the Fourth of July.

On their one weeknight night off, the counselors cram into a car to make their weekly journey to the laundromat. The wall is lined with dryers and washers in green and orange, and the bright reflection of the fluorescent lights on the tiled floor creates a surreal sense of space. As they wait for their friends to get quarters from the coin machine, Milk Bread and Space Ghost slide into a cracked booth and pull out cigarettes, using a misshapen piece of tin foil as their ashtray. The owner of the laundromat presides over a counter off to the side where he sells fast food and 99 cent shaved ice.

The group ambles back out to the car, the heat hitting them with a visible force as they exit the door. The humidity is so high they drink rather than breathe the air.

“Everyone else thinks that they have it humid and they don’t and they don’t understand. And they’re still not going to understand, you’re going to write that, but they’re still not going to know,” Castaway insists emphatically, holding up a hand against any possible protest. “I will be showering in the bathhouse and I’m not sure if it’s water on me or if I’m still sweating. You just don’t know. Very questionable.”

While their clothes are in the wash, the counselors go to eat at the local Westside Grill, which everyone inexplicably calls Boo’s. They eat pizza and toasted ravioli in a booth, a circular fan halfheartedly churning overhead. The TV behind them is playing ESPN Rodeo at full volume. Castaway reaches over and steals Space Ghost’s fried okra while Kappy stands up and roams around the booth, absorbed in a game of Pokemon Go.

“Excuse me, sir?” the man turns around from his neighboring booth. A flush creeps out from under his high-buttoned collar. Kappy, absorbed in his game, does not look up.

“Did you just take a picture of me?” he demands, looking squarely in Kappy’s eyes with defensive indignation, half-rising out of his seat.

Nervous, Kappy takes a step back, stammering as he tries to explain the concept of the game to the man, who continues to regard him with defensive suspicion. Slowly, he seems to accept Kappy’s explanation and releases himself back into his seat, turning back towards his date without another word. Kappy immediately walks back to his seat and keeps his phone in his pocket for the rest of the meal.

After returning to the laundromat to put their clothes in the dryer, searching the bottom of their pockets for quarters, they drive to the town’s main destination: Wal-Mart. They roam through the mostly-empty aisles, running into several other counselors and attracting sidelong glances from others in the aisle who don’t recognize these boisterous, Chaco-wearing young adults. “Don’t shoplift from Wal-Mart,” KC, the program director, told everyone the first day of camp. “They’ll immediately know it was a camp person, and the manager will just call me and tell me.”

“My favorite shirt that they sell says, ‘I’m a Jesus-loving Missouri Girl,’’ says Castaway, laughing and shaking her head. “It has an outline of the state on the back with a cross through it.” Wal-Mart shirts are a camp counselor staple: they delight in showing off the most ludicrous sayings. They stand in line to check out, unconcernedly pulling out a credit card to pay for a cartful of cat tshirts. In line in front of them, a family is buying the same shirts for their kids to wear to school.

Offhand, Castaway comments that while it seems far away, Potosi is not really so different from Canton. If one takes away St. Lawrence University and many of those with high economic privilege who attend, “It would be like Potosi with snow,” she claims. “And without the humidity!”

Sure, there are more Sonics in Missouri, she says, but drive down Route 11 and you will see just as many Confederate flags and religious billboards. Many small towns are alike no matter where they are, she claims — and many of the economic disparities that characterize a town in rural Missouri are just as painfully prevalent in upstate New York. Perhaps the two small towns are truly not that different. Perhaps neither are the outsiders that seasonally inhabit their own spheres on the fringes of Potosi and Canton. Perhaps, most likely of all, the reality is foggier than either party sees from behind the warped funhouse surface of their own translucent bubbles.


About the author

Claire Mendes